Almond security

Several years ago when I was working for a supply chain security company, I remember discussing physical controls versus logical controls with some industry experts. Whereas encryption can provide a fairly inexpensive, although non-trivial, way to prevent tampering of software, it can be very expensive although trivial to prevent tampering of goods. Some of my colleagues, who worked on logistics for the US military operations in Iraq and Somalia, pointed out that it is common for crates filled with many hundreds of thousands of dollars of goods to sit in a dark yard protected by a chainlink fence and a sleepy unarmed (or lightly-armed) guard, if anything at all. At the end of the day everyone tended to agree that the risk we needed to address was less about thing in actual transit and more about storage and holding areas:

Recent news has put the almond industry into the spotlight:

Crime officials estimate the total losses from the almond thieves at $1.5million in the past 18 months to two years throughout the Valley. No arrests have been made.

The nut thieves hit Fresno County the night of Oct. 1, stealing a semi-truck carrying a container of almonds from the Devine Intermodal yard, according to the Almond Board of California.

The truck was attached to a 40-foot container filled with 44,000 pounds of blanched, sliced and diced almonds packed by Campos Brothers in Caruthers.

Talk about nuts. Just for perspective, almonds are California’s top agricultural export. According to the article another theft this summer was 88,000 pounds of almonds worth $260,000. This is not the work of the average street-corner roaster looking for a few extras, obviously, as shifting close to 100,000 pounds means the existing supply chains may be willing and able to accept stolen goods.

Fall is a good time to sell stolen almonds, [spokesman for the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department] Singh said — demand and prices are high and supply is still low before the crop is fully harvested and processed.

Most of the buyers are believed to be overseas in countries such as India, China, Russia and Portugal, Singh said. Paperwork that generally accompanies domestic almond shipments makes the nuts too easy to trace. Investigators believe the buyers either know, or choose to ignore, evidence the nuts are stolen.

In some cases people might be paying twice for the almonds if they end up covering the cost of losses with higher almond prices while actually purchasing stolen goods.

On the other hand, just for a chilling tangent, the almonds could also be going to a different purpose outside the normal distribution network. In other words, instead of beneficial oil (yes, biodiesel), syrup, and culinary uses the almonds could also be diverted to nefarious purposes like cyanide or controversial medicines:

A compound called amygdalin differentiates the bitter almond from the sweet almond. In the presence of water (hydrolysis), amygdalin yields glucose and the chemicals benzaldehyde and hydrocyanic acid (HCN). HCN, the salts of which are known as cyanide, is poisonous. To be used in food or as a flavoring agent, the HCN must be removed from the bitter almond oil. Once it is removed, the oil is called volatile almond oil and is considered to be almost pure benzaldehyde. Volatile almond oil can still be toxic in large amounts.

“Laetrile,” an alternative cancer drug marketed in Mexico and other countries outside of the U.S., is derived from amygdalin. Multiple cases of cyanide poisoning, including deaths, have been associated with laetrile therapy.

A growth in an underground market for poisons and medicines would clearly alter the risk calculation for almond supply chain security. While some basic upgrades to perimeter security for stored almond containers will surely help in most cases, there may be another darker side to the story from these stolen almonds. And if the market for stolen almonds has matured enough, better controls around stored containers may just shift the thefts to hijacking them en-route.

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